11/19/08 - New research center opens to benefit children with special needs
Date: November 19, 2008
The Siskin Center for Child and Family Research joins the family of initiatives at Siskin Children’s Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on education, outreach and support for children with developmental and behavioral disabilities. The center’s three doctoral-level researchers — including the world’s leading child engagement expert Robin McWilliam, Ph.D. — aim to find effective and innovative methods of intervention to improve the functioning of children and their families while assisting the professionals who serve them.
The research center’s studies will focus on children with developmental and behavioral disabilities from birth through preschool – typically about 5 years old. More than one million children were served under IDEA in 2007 in the United States; 16,725 children in Tennessee received services last year.
The center’s findings will reach much further than Tennessee, both in scope and scale. “Our applied research will help teachers and families – regardless of location – learn more effective ways to engage children with disabilities,” said Research Scientist Amy M. Casey, Ph.D. “When you consider the number of educators and families we can touch by aggressively sharing this information, the impact is exponential.”
The center’s discoveries will be disseminated to educators, higher education institutions, social agencies, advocacy groups and government agencies locally and worldwide. Partnerships are expected to grow out of collaborations with academic institutions and other research scientists; partnerships already established include Vanderbilt University, the University of Florida, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Middle Tennessee State University.
Experts unaffiliated with the research center say the facility has the potential to become a national leader in early childhood development and special education. “This new center will develop a national reputation for excellence through its groundbreaking research to improve the lives of children and families,” said Craig H. Kennedy, Ph.D., chair of the special education department at Vanderbilt University and former colleague of Dr. McWilliam.
Dr. McWilliam and Dr. Casey brought with them to the Institute several research projects, including a study focused on improving early intervention services in Tennessee funded by a $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. New studies already are under way in the area, including several within the Siskin Early Learning Centers and a collaborative project with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Child Care Center. Other studies are being conducted across the United States and world, including in Australia, Egypt and Portugal.
It is not typical for an organization of the Institute’s size to have an independent research center with three accomplished researchers. “I’ve talked with a lot of other moms in different parts of the country who have children with autism, and they just don’t have the same opportunities that are available here at the Institute,” said Chattanooga mother Jackie Benkert, whose four-year-old daughter, Lillian, has autism. Lillian has drastically improved her language and social skills by participating in research conducted at the Institute. “But now other kids across the world will have the chance to experience what Lillian did, and I think that’s amazing,” Benkert added.
The research center is located within the Chattanooga-based Institute, which operates two early learning centers where children with and without disabilities — ages six weeks to six years — learn together in an inclusive setting. In addition to natural environments in various communities, researchers conduct studies within these preschool classrooms that offer a “living laboratory” to gain additional knowledge and understanding. Immediate access to children in an education environment is one of the unique characteristics of the new research center.
Dr. Robin McWilliam’s move to the Institute makes the organization the national center of the Early Intervention in Natural Environments approach and child engagement research — concepts for which Dr. William is considered the world’s leading expert. He and Dr. Casey are becoming known as experts regarding research focused on improving the quality of instruction through teacher feedback. Dr. McWilliam is currently studying ways to improve individualized family service plans, and Dr. Casey is studying ways preschool teachers’ perceptions of the feedback they receive.
Although the research center is a new initiative for the Institute, it is not the first time the organization has engaged in primary research. Tom Buggey, Ph.D., has conducted research at the Institute for two years as the Siskin Endowed Chair of Excellence in Early Childhood Special Education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is a leading expert in video self-modeling (VSM), a technique used to promote positive behavior changes in children. Dr. Buggey currently conducts studies related to VSM and its effects on the ability of children with autism to improve language and social skills.
About Robin McWilliam, Ph.D.
About Siskin Children’s Institute